Remember Villyan Bijev? You should. In 2011, he caught lightning in a bottle with a massively productive trial for Liverpool’s U18s. He scored five goals and had two assists in two games, and upon such relatively small things are careers built.
Bijev, who was born in Bulgaria and raised in California, immediately signed a three-year contract with Liverpool, igniting the imagination of Americans everywhere. Liverpool is a big club. Bijev was an American. Could this be the breakthrough?
It was not. Bijev could not obtain a work permit despite his EU passport, and he was shuttled off to loans in Germany and Norway before manager Kenny Dalglish, who’d IDed Bijev and brought him to the club, was fired for Brendan Rodgers in 2012. Bijev made a total of two first team appearances on loans at Fortuna Dusseldorf and IK Start before he was cut loose at the end of his contract and signed for mid-table Bulgarian side Slavia Sofia. He was only there for five months before his contract was terminated, allowing him to sign with Cherno More Varna in January.
And now we are here.
Bijev recently spoke with his hometown Fresno Bee about what’s next, after his deal with Cherno ran its course prior to the holidays. Bijev weaves a maudlin tale about the unvarnished reality of life behind the work permit, from the club politics of striker vs. striker to the lonely road of sudden loans in foreign places.
Bijev is now 23 and at home in California for the holidays, pondering his next move. He is done in England, and he could conceivably return to Bulgaria, although to what in particular is a better question to ask. He has not appeared in an MNT jersey in more than three years, when he got in some caps with the U20s, and he has played sparingly for first teams since he left for Liverpool as a precocious 18-year old.
This is the other side of the coin to the argument that college soccer (and our development pathways in the U.S. as a whole) has lost its utility. Simply leaving for Europe is not the ultimate salve for development, cannot simply be the way every player becomes world class. Because there are political bents involved, coaching changes to navigate, different cultures to adapt to.
It is so easy to forget, always, that these are humans we are dealing with, not statistics, and to simply assume a move across the pond will somehow magically create the next world class American player is to ignore all the things that make life difficult. Bijev can tell you about the mental toll of a loan to a club that has no intention of playing you, or how to deal with a coaching change at the club that signed you. Suddenly the club is unrecognizable and you are in the cold.
So it goes. This is a cutthroat world, and Bijev learned the difficult way that there is no single cut-and-dry pathway to stardom. Maybe it’s through Liverpool. Maybe it’s through the University of Washington. There is no telling.
Now, Bijev could be on his way to MLS. At 23, he’s essentially the age of an old senior, and he can almost certainly stick on an MLS roster as a trialist this preseason. And maybe he’ll kickstart his career back where it all began. Wouldn’t that be a story worth telling.